This week, The Star witnessed as several meat handlers from Seemann’s Finest Quality Meat in Strijdompark, Randburg, sat behind a locked gate below the deck during their lunch.
The area is linked to the goods-receiving section of the business, where they package, label and prepare meat from suppliers. They get locked up from 7am until 5pm, when they knock off.
There are about 30 workers, who mostly come from Soweto, Cosmo City, Tembisa and Diepsloot, with a few foreign nationals. They take home an average salary of R4 000 a month.
“Every day it’s like this. We sit here and we are not allowed to go out until we finish our shift. It has been like that for years. We can’t even run our personal errands during our break. We can’t even take a smoke break,” said one frustrated employee.
The company’s chief executive, Costa Kousiakis, however, rejected these claims, saying his staff were allowed to move about freely during their down time.
“They use that area under the deck to have a smoke and, of course, not all smoke. We have to use the padlock because we can’t give everyone free access in our premises. They are free to do their personal things during their break,” said Kousiakis.
During The Star’s visit, the steel mesh gate was fitted with a padlock, which remained locked throughout the day. The staff could only communicate with colleagues from other departments through the gate. The area also has toilets.
The workers claimed their employer introduced this desperate measure to curb theft and to limit the transferring of germs.
“We are being victimised here. We are subjected to searches when we come in and when we leave. We are only allowed out when it’s a case of emergency, and we still have to fight to be let out. It’s very undermining and frustrating, but we don’t have a choice because we need the job.
"It’s humiliating when patrons walk past us while we are locked up here. We feel like we are in a zoo; even children laugh at us sometimes,” said another employee.
Labour Department spokesperson Mokgadi Pela said they were not aware of the grim working conditions at the facility. “But now that we are aware of what’s going on we will definitely dispatch inspectors there. Even if they change the conditions in the interim after this story, we will still inspect the area behind the locked gate,” Pela added.
Most patrons from the deck seemed unaware of the locked up workers as they passed the gate on their way to the toilet downstairs.
Customer Mmifi Molapo said he was appalled to see the workers there on Wednesday. “I challenged their manager and he told me it was necessary to lock up the workers because they had a tendency to wander off during lunchtime. That’s not acceptable. Labour laws are there to be followed. You can’t restrain an employee because of their habit. It’s against the law.”